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Flagman: Safeguarding the Tracks Through History

Published: July 24, 2023

By: Adam Burns

In the early days of railroads, ensuring the safety of both passengers and workers was a daunting task. With trains hurtling along tracks at high speeds, accidents were frequent and often catastrophic.

The role of the "flagman," the term for a rear brakeman in the United States, emerged as a crucial position responsible for managing safety of the train's rear.  In this article, we will explore the fascinating history and the job requirements of this job position.

History

During the steam era, freight trains operated with a five-man crew; the engineer, fireman, and head brakeman were situated in the locomotive cab while the conductor and rear brakeman, or "flagman," were both based in the caboose.

During the days prior to radios and modern communication it was essential to have so many crew members aboard a freight train to keep a constant eye on the cars and equipment.

Back then there was no such thing as an End Of Train device (EOT) or flashing rear-end device (FRED) to electronically monitor things like brake line pressure or potential car separation.  

It was all done manually; the flagman and conductor, would perch themselves in the caboose cupola while the train was in motion to watch for such things, or if time permitted from a passing train. 

The flagman's primary job, however, involved protecting the rear of the train.  In the Standard Rules For Movement Of Trains published in 1908, when a freight train stopped an engineer would give one long, and three short blasts from the whistle, thus indicating a flagman/rear brakeman needed to immediately run two miles behind the train and protect it from any approaching movements.

In "dark," or un-signaled territory, this practice was especially critical.  In his book, "Working On The Railroad," author Brian Solomon notes the flagman would grab his flagging kit, which contained fusees (a type of flare) and "torpedoes" (attached to the top of the rail, this device that would make a loud "bang" under a locomotive's wheels, thus alerting the crew to immediately stop their approaching train) and protect his train from a point of two miles back.

He would remain at this position until the engineer made a series of either four or five short blasts to return to the train.  This number depending on which direction was being protected. 

On a double-tracked line, even the front of the train needed to provide the above-noted protections as a train brought to an emergency stop may have incurred a derailment mid-train and be fouling the opposite track, thus putting any movement in this direction in danger.

Brakemen

The brakemen has played a crucial role in the operation of trains for over a century. Their responsibilities have evolved over time, but their contributions to ensuring the safe and efficient movement of trains have remained constant.

During the early years of the industry, which began during the early 1830s in the United States, trains were significantly smaller, slower, and less complex than their modern counterparts.

Brakemen in this era were responsible for manually applying brakes on individual cars using handbrakes. They would ride on top of the train cars, carefully timing their movements to control the speed and prevent accidents.

The job was extremely dangerous. Riding on the exposed tops of cars was perilous, and brakemen were exposed to harsh weather conditions and the risk of falling or being struck by low bridges and tunnels.  Many were killed or severely maimed from falling or being struck by objects.

Despite these challenges, brakemen were essential for safe train operations, and their work allowed for the expansion of rail networks across the country.

In the mid-19th century, the introduction of air brakes revolutionized the railroad industry and the role of brakemen.

Developed by George Westinghouse, the air brake system allowed brakemen to control the entire train's brakes from one location, usually the caboose. This advancement significantly improved safety and made it possible for trains to operate at higher speeds and with longer consist lengths.

With air brakes, brakemen were no longer required to ride on top of cars to apply brakes manually, reducing the risks associated with their job. Instead, they operated the brake valves from within the caboose, and signals were transmitted through air hoses that ran the length of the train.

Throughout the years, the job requirements of a brakeman have evolved to meet the changing needs of the industry. Today, while the this role has diminished greatly with the advent of technology and automation, their legacy lives on in modern train operations, which have largely been taken over by freight conductors.

1. Safety Protocols: Safety remains the top priority for railroad brakemen. They must be well-trained in safety procedures, emergency protocols, and the proper use of safety equipment. This includes understanding air brake systems and other relevant technologies.

2. Communication Skills: Effective communication is crucial for railroad brakemen. They need to communicate with other crew members, including engineers, conductors, and dispatchers, to ensure smooth train operations.

3. Physical Fitness: While modern brakemen may not need to ride on top of cars, they still require physical fitness. The job may involve climbing ladders, walking on ballast, and performing other physically demanding tasks.

4. Knowledge of Rules and Regulations: Brakemen must be well-versed in the rules and regulations governing train operations. This includes understanding train orders, signals, and speed restrictions.

5. Adaptability and Problem-Solving Skills: Railroad operations can be unpredictable, and brakemen must be adaptable and quick-thinking. They may need to respond to unforeseen situations promptly and effectively.

6. Training and Certification: Brakemen undergo comprehensive training programs provided by the railroad companies. They are required to obtain relevant certifications to demonstrate their competence in their roles.

The history of the brakeman is one of evolution and adaptation. From the early days of riding on top of cars to the modern era of advanced technology, brakemen have been essential to the safe movement of trains.

While the job requirements have changed, the dedication to safety and efficiency remains the hallmark of this vital profession. The contributions of railroad brakemen continue to shape the railroad industry and ensure the transportation of goods and people across the nation.

Evolution

As technology advanced, the need for manual signaling decreased. Railroads implemented more sophisticated communication systems, including telegraph lines, radios, and eventually computerized signaling systems.

Automation and remote monitoring have further reduced the reliance on human flagmen in many situations.  Today, the initial role of the flagman from the steam era has long since vanished; with the Flashing Rear End Device (FRED), track circuits, Centralized Traffic Control (CTC), modern signaling, and GPS, the need for this position has long since vanished as a stand-alone job title.

However, on occasion, such as in "dark" territory (non-signaled) the role of the flagman can still be performed to warn of blockage on the tracks, such as if a train has been stopped unnecessarily for any number of reasons.


Conclusion

Throughout history, the railroad flagman has been an essential figure, ensuring the safe and efficient movement of trains.

While technology has transformed the role, the core responsibility of promoting safety remains unchanged. The dedication and expertise of the railroad flagman have played a vital role in the development and expansion of railroads, making them an indispensable part of the railroad industry's legacy.


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